Andy Housiaux
September 17, 2018

Q&A with Andy Housiaux

The new Currie Family Director of the Tang Institute has exciting plans to support and grow student learning, teaching
by Jenny Barker

On July 1, 2018, Andy Housiaux assumed his role as Currie Family Director of the Tang Institute at Phillips Academy. But he was no stranger to the Institute, having previously worked as a Tang fellow for three years on his project, “Mindful Community,” which he has exciting plans to continue in the coming year. He will also continue to serve as an instructor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department.

Recently we sat down with Housiaux to discuss the Institute’s role in enriching student learning at Andover; his ideas for exploring the possibility of a “school-within-a-school” and expanding interdisciplinary opportunities; and how Andover can lead the way in establishing inclusive and reflective approaches to secondary education. In describing the Institute, Housiaux says that it exists to support the strategic direction of Andover’s curriculum, currently oriented around the pillars of the 2014 Strategic Plan: Equity & Inclusion, Empathy & Balance, and Creativity & Innovation. But, even with sights set on enhancing the Andover experience, Housiaux is clear that non sibi is the guiding force for the Institute’s work. Cultivating partnerships locally and globally—sharing Andover’s resources and learning from others—is essential, he says, as we take part in the “global conversation on what the future of secondary education should be.” Read on for the full interview.

What excites you most about the Tang Institute?

This is an incredibly compelling moment to be in secondary education in general, and to be at Phillips Academy. We are in the middle of a time of real reflection among schools, with new ideas emerging on a regular basis. States in our region, including New Hampshire and Vermont, are rethinking the nature of secondary education as they reflect on the limits of traditional grades and traditional assessments. Their initiatives align closely with the Mastery Transcript Consortium (of which Andover is an early member), a network of public and independent high schools from across the country and the world, who are together exploring new ways to evaluate students and have them demonstrate their skills and abilities over a high school career. As research into cognitive science is made accessible to lay audiences, faculty and students alike are reflecting on the implications of this knowledge for their learning and teaching. Questions about identity, choice, moral agency, and goodness remain ever-relevant, both because of their centrality to the founding ideals of Phillips Academy and because of an increasingly polarized political and epistemological landscape.

As a school with a strong history of leadership and a faculty that has shown an ongoing interest in engaging with central challenges in education today, we have a wonderful opportunity not only to contribute to these discussions about teaching and learning, but to help lead them. It’s exciting to imagine piloting a term-long school-within-a-school that takes seriously project-based and competency learning. Our successes and failures with this undertaking could help inform national conversations about mastery and competency-based learning and help us reflect on assessment and learning in all of our classes here. We have two years of data from our Scientific Learning project, and we are currently reflecting on the best ways to share our work with the broader community. We can share Andover’s leadership on matters of equity and inclusion—such as our all-gender dorm and our ongoing efforts to teach inclusive syllabi with inclusive pedagogies—with audiences near and far.

How do you think the Institute can impact the work of faculty and ultimately the experience of students at Andover?

The first phase of work at the Tang Institute focused primarily on individual projects. Going forward, we will make an effort to focus more on creating interdisciplinary teams of fellows who work on projects in specific areas. Take the school-within-a-school idea: we can imagine four to five teachers from different disciplines (Biology, Statistics, Economics, Art, and Philosophy) coming together with a group of 15 students to design an interdisciplinary project that connects, for example, the environment, food, and campus life. Looking a little further afield, we can imagine such work taking us to rivers and farms in the greater Merrimack Valley area, allowing us to partner with schools or community organizations. Looking a bit further again, we can imagine connections to our vibrant alumni networks, government organizations and ballot initiatives, and curriculum-based links to our Learning in the World programs.

A strong commitment to equity and inclusion work will be another focus for the Institute. Interdisciplinary groups of fellows can work together to think about how best to curate online resources for internal and external audiences. They can bring their shared knowledge and expertise to bear as we endeavor to connect our new projects to the core program of the school—in core classes, in the dorm, in Empathy, Balance, and Inclusion (EBI) curricula—and not just in selected electives. Our strong relationships with CAMD and the Brace Center will allow us to support their work and to bring speakers and events to campus in ways that mutually enrich our programming and the community’s learning.

This team-based approach to faculty work as Tang fellows will also enable faculty to return to their home departments and share their good ideas there. Right now, almost all of our teaching and learning happens departmentally; by giving faculty the time and tools to coach their colleagues in, for example, authentic assessment or evidence-based feedback strategies, we can also help to cultivate the next generation of pedagogical leaders on campus. At the same time, interdisciplinary groups of fellows working together will naturally think about ways to collaborate on new courses or common language around central intellectual competencies such as critical thinking, analytical writing, or effective communication.

What is the Institute’s role beyond campus?

I often think about concentric circles when I think about Tang’s impact beyond campus. The innermost circle is, unsurprisingly, students and faculty here. How are we learning from and reflecting on our teaching practice in light of central ideas in education, whether they come from John Dewey, bell hooks, or a recent TED talk from Silicon Valley? We need to listen, learn, and discern. What will be of lasting value to our students and this community? While there are unquestionably some exciting new ideas out there, there’s also some fluff. We must be able to engage thoughtfully with emerging ideas in education, knowing when to lean in to something substantive and when to step back from passing fads.

Thus one important job is hosting conversations on campus: discussions led by students and faculty from Community Engagement, community reads about the science of learning, mini-grants so faculty can talk about informal reciprocal classroom visits over a burger or a beer. We will continue to bring in speakers, often in conjunction with the Head of School’s Office or other departments on campus. And, at a place that can have a bit too much academic stress, we can provide an intellectual and artistic refuge in the physical space of the Tang Institute: poetry nights, discussions of faculty research, student clubs showing their learning to the community. Learning for the pleasure of learning—especially with students taking the lead in sharing their tremendous gifts and abilities—goes a long way in forming a healthy, vibrant, and inclusive community.

The next concentric circle is the local community. We already have some superb outreach programs: Andover Breadloaf, Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers, (MS)2, and PALS. How might we best support these programs and organizations, sharing their good work with audiences near and far? How might we deepen our partnerships with the Community Engagement office and some of the organizations they have longstanding relationships with? We have worked to develop a network of local public and private schools with similar interests and concerns, and we can work to bring students and faculty together for mutually enriching educational opportunities.

Expanding out again, we can consider fellow schools, boarding or day. All schools have an obligation to the wellbeing of all of their students, but we have additional responsibilities in a residential environment. What might we have to share about our experiences with all-gender housing, or our recent move to an affirmative consent policy? Thinking now about the political context: how do we make sense of a fractured, often bitter political divide? What capacities do students and faculty need to possess in order to fully engage with each other in this intentionally diverse community? We do not have all the answers, of course, but we have grappled meaningfully with these questions, exploring them in SEED groups, affinity spaces for students, and campus-wide fora led by student activists protesting gun violence and police brutality. Our good work in relation to empathy and balance, in and out of the curriculum, can enable us to contribute thoughtfully to multiple conversations.

Our Learning in the World programs connect our students to opportunities across the globe. These educational experiences have a long history at Phillips Academy, and I’m especially interested in thinking about how we can continue to deepen durable connections between these programs and our academic year coursework. We already have some strong links between courses and programs, but it’s also easy to imagine a pre- and post-trip course that is open to any student going on a summer LITW program. Students in this course could explore intellectual and moral frameworks and a set of common questions before departure; upon their return to campus, they could work towards individual or group capstone projects.

Finally, we can consider how our creativity and innovation might have a global impact through the use of the internet and various technological platforms. Certainly our partnership with Khan Academy is one example of this. Our SYA Calculus initiative is another. Kurt Prescott, a Tang Fellow in Religious Studies, will be drawing upon resources from Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project and their Pluralism Project, among other sources, to assemble and curate a range of content related to teaching religion—helping teachers at Andover and elsewhere wade through the thicket of online resources. (Google “Christianity lesson plan” sometime if you’re interested in an adventure.) There are other organizations out there whom we might consider partnering with in relationships of collaboration and exchange as well.

Will you continue your mindfulness research—any new plans?

I was fortunate to have such strong support as a Tang fellow for three years. The project will continue this year and will continue to build upon previous momentum. We will still have weekly sits for students and faculty, and we will continue to make regular trips to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center for daylong workshops there. Stay tuned to our online events calendar for more information on those opportunities and much more.

This year we are also hosting four well-respected mindfulness teachers. Alison Cohen, who has twice visited already to speak about mindfulness and implicit bias, will lead workshops—put on by the Dean of Students Office in September with 150 student leaders—about mindful self-care and mindful listening. Previously Alison has spoken to students and faculty about mindfulness and implicit bias and led discussions about meditation practice, and we are delighted by the opportunity to have her work with student leaders so early in the year. The mindfulness practices she teaches will be something our student leaders can try out and return to over the course of the year.

Building on the success of last spring’s visit from Alexis Santos, we are hosting three well-respected mindfulness teachers on campus. Just as Alexis did in April, they will offer a Friday evening talk open to the community and a day-long workshop on the weekend. We had almost 90 people at Alexis’s spring talk and close to 50 folks at his workshop: students, alums, parents, trustees, teachers from local schools, and community members all partook in these events. We anticipate similar positive reactions this time as well. Matthew Hepburn and Sebene Selassie, the other two visiting teachers, will also lead mindfulness work in affinity groups with students of color. Matthew did this work with Brotherhood when he came to visit last spring, and we are thrilled that both he and Sebene will offer this kind of meditation instruction. Some of the most exciting work being done today in mindfulness looks at connections to equity and inclusion work, and I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to help be a leader in these conversations at the secondary school level.

What are some other promising teaching and learning methods you see developing?

At our opening faculty meeting this fall, we explored how best to create inclusive learning environments. We also heard from a range of faculty in different disciplines about specific ways in which they intentionally set up a learning community that welcomes all students. This is perhaps our most central job as educators: knowing and caring for the students in our classrooms (and, of course, in the dorm, athletic fields, advising, clubs, and so on). The more we can think intentionally from the outset about how to set up communities where all learners feel seen and heard, the more we can do the difficult and sustained work of asking challenging questions about community, identity, knowledge, and goodness. I’m particularly excited about ways in which we can build on the superb work Andover has done in terms of equity and inclusion and think about it not just in terms of curricular content, but also in terms of pedagogical approaches.

In recent weeks, I’ve also worked with the Chairs of the English and History Departments to explore questions of assessment and feedback. To put this more plainly: when we think about assessment, we’re asking questions about student learning and the way we teachers come to understand what our students have learned. What evidence do I have of student learning? And how diverse is that evidence? For example, am I only assigning tests or essays, or am I asking students to show their understanding in a range of formats over the course of a term? I’m also interested in exploring questions around authentic assessment, which happens when we ask students to do the work that professionals in the discipline do. For example, the work of a historian is to examine and analyze a range of sources, evaluate them for bias, and look at ways in which narratives have been constructed, asking whose voices are present and whose voices are absent. When we ask our students to do this, we are asking them to think and act like historians—and not just to get good at “doing school” (to use the phrase of Denise Pope).

Giving feedback asks us to think about how and why we comment on student work. How can we best support student learning when we give feedback? What habits of mind are we promoting? As above, how can we help students learn to think like historians or scientists—and, of course, thoughtful citizens—and not just have them power through our homework on autopilot? When we’ve done our job well, we see evidence of these habits of mind and citizenship in places like David Onabanjo’s remarkable 2018 TED talk.

Anything else you want to add?

I am excited and humbled to be taking on this job. I’m excited because of all the possibilities that the Tang Institute represents. I’m humbled because of the profound generosity of so many alumni and donors that have made this work possible; I realize that I am a steward of their gifts and will work daily to improve education here and elsewhere. I’m also grateful for the superb work that Caroline Nolan did in getting this Institute going; I literally would not be able to do this job without the terrific foundation she built and all the gracious mentoring she has offered me along the way.

Finally, please be in touch! Share your best ideas with us. Come visit. Ask us questions. Point us toward people we should be in contact with. We’re always looking to learn more, and to share our learning with our partners on campus and around the globe.

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